Category Archives: Trends in Christianity

Schaeffer on Evangelical Political Alliances

In Shaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, he lays out three broken options to the fractured politics of his day. He articulates them as hedonism, the dictatorship of the 51 percent, and establishment elitism/true dictatorship (WFS 4:27–28). Another way of framing these three tensions is that of anarchy, demagoguery, and oligarchy. Shaeffer argues that people are pulled to one of these three extremes as confidence in objective truth erodes in the center (perhaps giving deeper meaning to Robert Kennedy’s use of Yeat’s “the centre cannot hold”).

Shaeffer goes on to explain how groups are pulled into these positions and makes the observation that evangelicals are particularly susceptible toward the third option:

The danger is that the evangelical, being so committed to middle-class norms [affluence and personal peace at any price] and often elevating these norms to an equal place with God’s absolutes, will slide without thought into accepting some form of establishment elite. (WFS 4:29)

In other words, as evangelicals grab for functional idols in wealth and security, they must necessarily let go of the functional authority of Scripture. As this happens, they become far more susceptible to strong and influential personalities who seem to uphold their values (i.e., wealth, security, and a veneer of God-talk).

My personal observation here is that the the past 50 years since Shaeffer wrote these words has borne out this reality all the more. I would suggest that Shaeffer’s three tensions are evident in American culture: radical left and right pulling toward anarchy, the left generally pulling toward the tyranny of the 51%, and the right generally opting for hope in a populist wealthy elite.

Evangelicals, following the course of rightward, middle-class norms, fall into the trap of seeing influential elites as allies in a binary quest for their idolatrous personal absolutes. Here Schaeffer states the tension well:

My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told: “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some one point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.”

The danger is that the older evangelical with his middle-class orientation will forget this distinction and become an ally of an establishment elite, and at the same time his son or daughter will forget the distinction and become an ally of some “leftish” elite. We must say what the Bible says when it causes us to seem to be saying what others are saying, such as “Justice!” or “Stop the meaningless bombings!” But what we must never forget that this is only a passing cobelligerency and not an alliance. (WFS 4:31)

And therein lies the evangelical problem. We have formed political alliances on the basis of values formed in the idol workshop of consumerism and materialism. We have forgotten that our allegiance does not lie with our party but with our God.

So what will be the result of the evangelical alliances with the elite who offer preservation of middle-class norms? Shaeffer closes with this observation:

If this revolution comes from either side, our culture will be changed still further. The last remnants of Christian memory in culture will be eliminated, and freedoms gone. If the revolution comes from the establishment, it will be much more gradual, much less painful for the Christian––for a while. But eventually it will be as total. We must not opt for one as against the other just because it seems to give a little peace for a little time. That is an enormous mistake, because both are equally non-Christian and eventually both will be equal in smashing out the freedoms which we have had. (WFS 35)

Perhaps the political alliances of the majority of evangelicals are fostering this sort of gradualism. Although the smashing of freedoms is a concern, for sure, my greater concern is the smashing of true Christianity along the way. If evangelicals sell their souls to the populist elite, what of true Christianity remains? What if the legacy of Christianity at the beginning of the twenty-first century is, as Yeats described it?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Francis Schaeffer on Christian Social Action

In addressing the problem of evil and the nature of man using the foil of Albert Camus’ The Plague, Francis Schaeffer closes with the following insights:

A Christian can fight what is wrong in the world with compassion and know that as he hates these things, God hates them too. God hates them on the high price of the death of Christ.

But if I live in a world of nonabsolutes and would fight social injustice on the mood of the moment, how can I establish what social justice is? What criterion do I have to distinguish between right and wrong so that I can know what I should be fighting? Is it not possible that I could in fact acquiesce in evil and stamp out good? The word “love” cannot tell me how to discern, for within the humanistic framework love can have no defined meaning. But once I comprehend that the Christ who came to die to end “the plague” both wept and was angry at the plague’s effects, I have a reason for fighting that does not rest merely on my momentary disposition, or the shifting consensus of men. (CWFS, The God Who Is There, 117–18)

Now comes the convicting part, where Schaeffer presses his Christian readers to do more than accept the moral high ground:

But the Christian also needs to be challenged at this point. The fact that he alone has a sufficient standard by which to fight evil does not mean that he will so fight. The Christian is the real radical of our generation, for he stands against the monolithic, modern concept of truth as relative. But too often, instead of being the radical, standing against the shifting sands of relativism, he subsides into merely maintaining the status quo. If it is true that evil is evil, that God hates it to the point of the cross, and that there is a moral law fixed in what God is in Himself, then Christians should be the first into the field against what is wrong––including man’s inhumanity to man. (CWFS, The God Who Is There, 118)

In this way, Schaeffer calls on believers to not just adopt a Christian worldview but to practice the Christian worldview––not just preach a gospel of justification but a gospel of sanctification too. In our day, as many attempt to create a dichotomy between Christianity and social actions and issues, Schaeffer’s call to reject the dichotomy rings true and insightfully prescient.

The Robin Williams Effect: Or, Why We Don’t See Problems Until It’s Too Late

As my news feed blew up on Monday night, I too was shocked and saddened by the story. But I couldn’t help but think of an interesting consideration based on one recurring comment. Here it is: “he was the last person I’d think would commit suicide!” For some reason we couldn’t help see the charming funnyman that many of us grew up watching as above the challenge of depression. We’d assumed that a wealthy A-list celebrity wouldn’t be hit by the emptiness that should be reserved for those who struggle to make ends meet or who’ve failed at life. But we were wrong.

Are there others?

And this hasn’t been the only time. We’ve also seen people with thousands of Facebook friends struggling with massive insecurities leading to suicide, the committed father who is struggling with sexual activity which threatens his marriage, the beautiful young woman who struggles with body image issues, the respected businessman who is embezzling from his company, or the pastor who is addicted to porn. These are some huge problems that we’ve often overlooked. Have you ever wondered what a difference it would make if we started plugging in and creating an environment where we could catch these kinds of problems before lives are ruined?

Why do we miss it?

I tend to think that we overlook huge problems and needs in others’ lives because we’re obsessed with impersonal and surface-level observations about people. We draw conclusions about others based on their persona in the media or on social media. We say “hi” to our coworker on the way into work or exchange pleasantries with a fellow church member, and assume that everything is okay.
“Comedy is acting out optimism.” – Robin Williams
Another issue is that when people finally open up to us about their problems, we tend to react poorly. Sometimes we treat people like they’re weak and can’t handle what they should be able to (i.e., what we can). Other times we treat people like they’re deserving of what they’re going through because of some fault of their own (i.e., that we haven’t done). Both of these responses lack grace. For by grace we can handle what we do and by grace we don’t get what we deserve. By approaching peoples’ problems this way, we take the grace of God for granted, all the while expecting others to try harder to earn it.

Can we reverse this trend?

We obviously can’t go deeper into the lives of celebrities (unless TMZ counts), but maybe we can do a better job reaching into the lives of those around us.
  1. One thing we can do is to change up the circumstances in which we interact with others. If you’re ready to get involved in the life of a coworker, invite them to an event outside of the workplace. Catch up with a fellow church member outside of church. Get your wife out of the house — date night! Take your son on an outdoor adventure. This all seems obvious, but how often do we really do this?
  2. As you engage with others, do it with grace. Always look for evidences of grace in their lives. We can always sit there an poke holes in people; if you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of failures in these things called “humans.” So we have to make a concerted effort to find peoples’ gifts and encourage those. Only when we approach people from a spirit of love, which believes and hopes for the best in all things, will we be ready to truly help the hurting.
  3. Another thing you can do is learn how to ask real questions. Now that you’re outside of a context where surface level interactions occur, start asking non-surface level questions. What has God been teaching you lately? Is there something I can be praying for you about? Where do you see yourself/your family in the next 5 years? What have you been reading recently?
  4. When people start talking, avoid the tendency to just check-out or think about what you’re going to say next. Follow the ebb and flow of the conversation, but be making mental notes about the areas where you can show the love of Christ to them. Don’t be afraid of the messiness and challenge of getting involved. Don’t fear the long road to recovery. Be a patient servant to those in need. Don’t just tell people that you’ll pray about this or that need; do something to meet that need if it lies within your ability.
  5. Lastly, close the loop. Continue to interact with your new-found friend online and in other out of the ordinary ways. Continue to share ways that God is growing you. Continue to pray for them and ask for updates on their requests. Continue to share your hopes and dreams. Share what you’re reading and how it’s impacting your thinking. Do something special for them and/or their family.

The Sawdust and the 2×4

Many people have heard the analogy that Jesus made (Matt. 7.3-5) about people who try to pick a piece of sawdust out of another person’s eye while they have a 2×4 in their own. The analogy is hilarious, but the implications are serious. I had a few thoughts today on this topic, so I thought I’d share them.

Relation: Sawdust and 2×4’s are similar, yet different

This should go without saying, but both items are byproducts of trees. They’re related by type. But they are drastically different in terms of their size, significance, and effect. The implication here is fascinating. It isn’t that people tend to see *any* kind of fault in the life of another, but that they see *genetically related faults* in the life of another person. The issues that they see in the other person are a categorical reflection of their own sins. When you’re going through a time of life where all you can see is other peoples’ issues, it is time for you to seek out godly counsel for your own heart. Perhaps the things you’re seeing in others is a reflection of a bigger and similar problem of your own.

Prioritization: Sawdust is still a problem

I think some people get the implication that these verses give them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card when it comes to outside critiques. Oddly enough, Jesus uses this analogy only to point out the challenge that the guy with a 2×4 in his head will have in *extricating* the sawdust, but not in his recognition that the sawdust *really is there.* So when some flawed individual comes to you with an issue, still do your best to consider that claim as valid. You may do well to bounce the claim off some accountability partners whose ability to be honest and see your issues clearly is unquestioned, but ignoring the issue entirely isn’t really fair to the analogy.

Categorization: 2×4’s as a new category of problems.

What Jesus is doing with this analogy is incredible. Jesus is pointing out that there is a whole category of sinners that we’re prone to forget about. We often think about sexual sinners or people who commit sins of speech, and so on. But Jesus reminds us that there are a bunch of people out there who walk around with lumber in their faces and haven’t taken the time to remove the problem. The funny thing about this is that we tend to look at the world in right/left perspective. We see conservatives and liberals, religious and irreligious. We see the guy with the 2×4 in his eye socket as someone in one camp or another camp. But Jesus gives us a category that transcends our own. For example, we’ve seen recent examples of hard right fundamentalists and left-leaning liberal Christians attacking notable evangelical leaders. In instances such as this, we’re reminded that 2×4-types transcend our categories. In God’s eyes, these two dissimilar groups in this instance share more in common than we originally would have thought.

Perception: You’d think we could see a 2×4, right?

Related to the previous point, it’s important to remember that if all we do is chat with, read, or befriend are people who share our dendrite problem, we’ll never see it for what it is. We’ll always see the sawdust of others as 2×4’s and receive critiques of our own 2×4 as if people were seeing sawdust. By surrounding ourselves by less than objective voices only from our own carpenter shop, we will consistently fail to recognize the gravity of our situation. And maybe this is part of the value of the church — it provides us with a variegated spectrum of saints who are able to see our problems better than we can ourselves. Seek out accountability not only from those who are most like you, but from those with whom you find little in common.

Concluding Thought: The value of outside accountability

Accountability is important in order to (a) evaluate whether the critiques we make are reflective of our own faults and (b) evaluate whether the critiques we receive are valid. Outside accountability is essential because (a) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our own categories, and (b) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our lack of context.